Getting in shape: A crash course in minimum-effort exercise and nutrition

I am not what you would call a dedicated bodybuilder - these days I often spend less than 15 minutes of focused exercise a week and still stay in great shape, because I now know which opportunities to seize on for easy gains. What motivates me in this topic isn't spending tons of hours at the gym, but rather optimizing the process so that the time I do spend provides the best gains possible.

Crash course in nutrition and exercise:

There are plenty of hardcore resources at the bottom. First off, what you most likely need is just to get rid of all the horrible misinformation you've been given, with a 10 minute guide to lay out how food, exercise and your body really work and how you can use that to your advantage for easy gains. I originally wrote this guide for a friend who was struggling with weight loss, wasting his time with crunches and jogging. These days, he's still the same geek and gamer he always was, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a profile picture of him not involving his six pack and/or a bare-chested handstand - as soon as what you're doing actually brings clear progress, it's a hell of a lot easier to stay motivated and have fun with it.


Fat loss is basically all about boosting your metabolism. The actual energy expended in physical exertion is negligible by comparison.

The most basic way of boosting metabolism is by working your body in bursts of peak intensity, rather than focusing on endurance. Running in intense intervals, rather than distance running, burns up to 9 times as much fat in the same amount of time (particularly if you add a bit of weight, such as a water bottle or dumbbell in each hand). Distance running further has the risks of burning muscle (muscles require energy to maintain; more muscle = easier fat loss), and of training your body for "efficiency" (more effort per calorie). Note that the fat loss from metabolism boosting happens over a longer period of up to 36 hours.

Play around and find convenient and enjoyable opportunities to kick your body into gear every day. Personally, I take the bike anywhere I go locally (basically free interval training every day) and occasionally climb a tree, practice a handstand against a wall for a few minutes, or something else that activates muscles in my entire body, and preferably pushes their limits slightly, even if just for a minute or three. Having used your muscles intensely (preferably a few sets of something that's tough enough for you to only be able do 8-12 repetitions at a time; yes just a few minutes) also has the added benefit of diverting nutrition for muscle growth - which in turn requires more energy to maintain and helps fat burning. If these options seem like chores, you could always shoot for starting each day off with a session of rough intense sex, and write it off as interval training.

Quick and easy fat-loss tips

Here are a few other tips for burning additional fat every day. All of these are unique categories, and you can safely assume that the effects stack:

Workout stuff

If you get your vitamins+minerals (either varied diet or pills - make sure they are of good quality so the body can actually absorb them) and omega 3+9 acids (supplements, or omega 3 by having fish regularly and omega 9 by having a spoonful of extra virgin olive oil a day), if you are aware of when and what kind of carbs you take in, and if you eat healthy about 90% of the time, your diet is so solid that exercise virtually becomes optional.

With good nutrition and occasional use, your muscles are not going to fade, so you are only going to be getting in better and better shape (making fat burning easier and easier) as you occasionally push the limits of your muscles. I recently started working out nearly an hour a week (that is, playing around in a gym for 15-30 minutes 1-3 times a week to stimulate my muscles for growth) because I thought it'd be fun to build my abs further and go in the direction of a 6-pack. I spend a bit more time and money cooking than I used to, but the food tastes that much better, and it's a ridiculously effortless way to stay in shape, compared to spending the effort on the workouts. All that is assuming that you design a somewhat active lifestyle where you automatically activate your muscles most days.

If you want to not only lose fat but also build your muscles, you should expect to devote 6-10 hours a week, if you want to build an all-around muscular body (+ 5-15 kg of muscles) within 3-6 months. Subtract a few hours a week if you don't need to get familiar with exercises and equipment first. That process is optional, but it does make fat loss even easier.

Remember the rule of thumb to always be increasing intensity when building muscles. Crunches is a beginner exercise and won't do much good, once you're strong enough to do well beyond 12 of them at a time. If you want to build abs, there are some good exercises in the marketing video for this program (the program is nice too, but the marketing video is all you need to build your abs with significant results).

Nutrition stuff

As for eating "healthy", the rule of thumb is that the less processed a thing is, and the fewer additives it has, the healthier it is. Minced meat > sausage etc.

Estimating calories for a week or two can be useful, particularly if you're building muscle, so you get a sense of scale (meals vs. snacks etc.), but once you have that concept I'd just focus on eating healthy without really caring how much.

Protein is the most important nutrient. Apart from supporting muscle growth and maintenance, protein gets you full faster and requires energy equal to 75% of its own calorie content for processing in the body. This means that eggs, meat, fish and other delicious stuff like that is among the most healthy options available. Lots of dairy also contains protein, but unless it's unpasteurized and unhomogenized, these nutrients won't be fully accessible to the body. Don't go too heavy on fish (more than 1 can a day) unless you're certain it doesn't contain mercury traces, as your body can only filter so much at a time. Try to find lots of tasty sources of protein, and include some with every meal.

Fat is being painted as the big bad wolf in nutrition, but it's really quite undeserved. Fat does contain more calories, but is also that much more filling. As long as it's a healthy, natural source (nuts, meat, eggs, fish, olive oil etc.) you shouldn't be afraid of fat at all. Saturated fat has a bad rep based on flawed research in the sixties and is no threat. You want to watch out for trans-fats though - these break down your cells and kill them, essentially both causing harmful mutations in your body and slowing your metabolism. These are particularly found in margarine, most ice cream and in vegetable oils that have been heated past their stable point. It can be worth using coconut oil or some similar cooking oil that isn't either turned to crap during extraction or during high-heat cooking, if you can be assed to. Peanut butter is a popular source of high quality nutrients, but many people are allergic to it without knowing it, in a way that causes it to almost completely halt their fat loss - even so, it can still be worth considering on days when muscle building is in focus.

Carbs is actually the most important factor in weight loss. They affect your blood sugar far more than protein and fat, and whenever you get a spike in your blood sugar, your body goes into a fat storage mode, where surplus calories start getting stored on your body. This is particularly true of simple carbs ("white" carbs - sugar, pasta, rice, bread, wheat, potatoes, fruit) which get processed quickly and easily causes those spikes. The best low-effort fat loss diet I've ever tried, is to simply avoid simple carbs 6 days a week, so your body never goes into fat storage mode on those days (you can find more info on this diet in The 4-Hour Body (.uk / .ca) by Tim Ferriss). Your blood sugar can still be spiked by complex carbs and other nutrients - it can help to eat more slowly or to drink water during your meal (both ways essentially diluting the food, so it gets absorbed over a longer period of time). Note that fruit (including concentrated forms, like the sugar-alternative 'High-Fructose Corn Syrup' in most US candy) is completely non-essential (you can get vitamins elsewhere) and can cause weight gain. Not only does it spike the blood sugar, but unlike most other simple carbs, which come in the form of glucose, that is processed in your muscles, fructose is processed in your liver which has a much lower capacity of ~50g. All spillover is basically converted to body fat. Note that exerting your muscles can be a useful technique before cheating and consuming something that is heavy in fast carbs, so the energy is used to refuel the muscles (though blood sugar still spikes). In general it's a good idea to have most of your carbs in the first half of the day, and around the time when you use your muscles the most - it can also be an advantage not to eat fat at the same time as carbs.

Misc. stuff

There are extreme measures to lose nearly a pound of fat a day on average, for 25 days. If you go with anything significantly better than just using these methods to steadily go in the right direction, you want to be aware of a thing called leptin levels. Simply starving yourself is only going to show results for a week or so, before your body basically goes into starvation mode. The way to circumvent that, is to either have more gradual fat loss with plenty of nutrients along the way (I used to eat 3-4000 calories a day to maintain muscles, and I still didn't gain any excess body fat) - or to occasionally refill leptin levels by having a cheat day where you're allowed to go all-out feasting. This can be a fun way to go about it, and make it a lot easier to maintain a healthy diet - simply make mental notes of all the stuff you're missing and then once a week you start off with a healthy protein-rich meal (to dampen the appetite) and then eat whatever you feel like for the rest of the day. If your standard diet is healthy, it's damn near impossible to sabotage more than 1-2 days of progress (particularly if you workout first, so muscles are exerted and lots of nutrients go toward muscle growth), meaning that you'll still progress at a rapid pace and your body never fears starvation and blocks your fat loss. On cheat days, the keys are to eat plenty of calories and to often eat both fats and carbs at the same time.

Alcohol is still a bad choice, even on cheat days. Apart from containing tons of empty calories, it plummets your testosterone levels and greatly lowers your metabolism while it is being cleansed from your system. If you want it, consider it the same way as all other "cheating" and decide whether you want to prioritize cakes or beer. Just be aware that alcohol may be counterproductive for the leptin-effect you're trying to achieve on cheat days.


Now, remember that I'm not even bothering to use every trick every day and I'm still in excellent condition and continually improving with minimal effort. You can use however much or little you care to, but simply being aware of this stuff means that you have a lot of opportunities to change your habits, so these things just happen during the course of activities that you need to get done anyhow. Have fun with it.

Women can safely assume that all of this advice applies to them as well. Their muscle mass will develop a bit slower and in more feminine ways, which means that it's very easy to adjust course. I'd recommend any woman become confident using weights in their training, even if bodyweight exercises can be better in the long term for achieving a 'toned', rather than 'muscular', look.

Additional resources

Vince DelMonte

Known among his fans as "the skinny-guy savior", Vince DelMonte is an excellent resource for more general workout advice and advances in muscle building. His No-Nonsense Muscle Building is a great general-purpose program and the one which originally brought me into this area. His newer program 21 Day Fast Mass Building also makes for an excellent alternative focused on rapid gains.

Tim Ferriss

The-4 Hour Body (.uk / .ca) is an excellent resource on many interesting topics relating to nutrition, exercise and the human body. While this book is a great and fun read for anyone and his advice will definitely help you lose fat and build muscle, it is very specific. It can achieve the objective (less fat, more muscle) no problem, but if you want more detailed awareness of how various nutrients affect your progress or want to use a wide range of exercises for deliberate goals, then I'd recommend going with a more dedicated workout program and using this as a valuable supplement of knowledge instead.

Extreme Fat Loss Diet

I briefly touched on an extreme diet that claimed to offer losses of 1 pound a day for 25 days. I tried it out of curiosity and while I did not measure my results, I could see visible changes every 1-2 days which was a huge motivation. The information I present in the crash course will already be plenty to easily get in great shape at a really good pace, but if you want to peak your leanness, achieve really rapid results or you, like I was, are mostly just curious to try it out, here it is. Joel Marion offers a lot of good information in general. Be aware though, that this diet is based on extreme methods and a pretty heavy calorie deficit - try not to have it overlap with any periods where you'll want to be fully fed and operating at peak capacity.

Scientific sources

While I originally learned much of this from bodybuilding sources, it seems the research is starting to catch up - or perhaps that the quality research has just started getting the due attention. For a great list of sources confirming much of what I've shared here, check this article.

As for how so many myths and useless misinformation persists and keeps being fed to you by society at large, you might want to check out this engaging UCSF-lecture which debunks a dozen common nutrition myths, touches on their historical background, and proceeds to explain the monetary incentives for keeping these myths alive. Oh and he also touches on how HFCS (high-fructose corn syrup) is prevalent in much US food and is essentially a highly fattening toxic for the human body - be sure to check those food labels.

On the same note, keep in mind that the American fast food industry is huge and there are many rich companies who have a vested interest in maintaining the illusion that a calorie is a calorie and that the type and quality of your food does not matter.

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